Accessibility and Cyberinfrastructure

On May 3, 2008 the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) entered into force. This marks a historic shift in in attitudes toward accessibility – both as it applies to infrastructure and cyberinfrastructure. The CRPD notes that people with disabilities should not be seen as “objects of charity,” but rather as “subjects with rights.”[1] This has massive implications, both as it relates to the meaning of the term disability itself and to the future of the internet landscape and those devices used to survey it.

“Disability” is a fluid and somewhat nebulous term. According to some statistics, approximately 15% of people in the world have a disability, and of course as we age we all begin to face disabilities.[2] A disability results from interactions between non-inclusive societies and individuals, and is often caused by environmental barriers.[3] One common demonstration of environmental barriers comes in the form of a person with and without glasses. An extremely near-sighted person without glasses would most certainly have a disability. Yet that same person wearing appropriate glasses would have the same access as everyone else in his or her society and would not be considered disabled.

Examples like this, where some modification can provide the same access to those with and without any handicaps, are where the push to promote more equal designs of products and services originates. The internet is becoming a new way of life – these days almost anything, from grocery shopping to job applications, occurs online. It goes without saying that new buildings in the US take great care to provide items like ramps and elevators to ensure equal access, so why wouldn’t these metaphorical ramps also be naturally built into the plans of online cyberinfrastructure? Making cyberinfrastructure accessible adds a layer of complexity to the construction process, but with some practice and forethought, the practice of making online services and devices more reachable could easily become the norm, which, as the CRPD highlights, absolutely needs to happen in order to avoid denying those with disabilities their rights.

Myhill, Cogburn, et al particularly champion the idea of universal design. ‘Universal design

table 1

William Myhill, Derrick Cogburn, et al “Accessible Cyberinfrastructure- enabled Knowledge Communities in the National Disability Community: Theory, Practice and Policy,” Assistive Technology (2008): 163.

(UD) refers to the creation of products and environments, as well as practices, programs and services, that are accessible to and usable by all persons, including individuals with disabilities, without adaptation or specialized design.”[4]

I find the principle of universal design somewhat optimistic, considering how accessibility has never reached perfection and the difficulty that is inherent in trying to make all-encompassing devices, yet I agree with the sentiment. Many things, such as large font options on websites, allow a large number of users with various needs to access information that they have a right to see.  Some disabilities, particularly cognitive, are not easily overcome by a few simple alterations. However, efforts should become naturally engrained in the development process, where feasible, to ensure that everyone has as much access as possible to cyberinfrastructure. In the words of Foley and Ferri, “Access is becoming a higher-stake issue – we cannot wait for an accessible patch or Band-Aid.”[5]

[1] Derrick Cogburn, “Access, Accessibility and Assistive Technology,” Lecture to course SIS-628 Innovation in Information and Communication Technologies at American University, Washington, DC, 23 September 2013.
[2] Ibid
[3] Ibid
[4] William Myhill, Derrick Cogburn, et al “Accessible Cyberinfrastructure- enabled Knowledge Communities in the National Disability Community: Theory, Practice and Policy,” Assistive Technology (2008): 158.
[5] Alan Foley and Beth Ferri, “Technology for people, not disabilities: ensuring access and inclusion,” Jorsen (2012): 8.


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